Visit any town or city in Great Britain or continental Europe and you’ll see the same thing: the cenotaph that commemorates the dead of World War I. Cenotaphs were necessary because the men who fell were not transported home for burial. The monuments bear the names of the dead, and in some villages, what takes your breath away are the number of names. America didn’t send troops until the war was almost over, so the casualties were a fraction of those lost by the British, French, Germans, and Russians. Those countries, and the Commonwealth countries that also sent troops, lost an entire generation of men. My own great-grandfather died near Ypres in 1917, a member of the Lancashire Fusiliers, and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that I found out that he lay in a cemetery of the Allied dead in Belgium.
In the treaty that ended the war, the victors decided to punish the losers by making them pay for the cost of the war. And while that decision may seem understandable as a misplaced desire to somehow compensate for all that had been lost, the effect on Germany was disastrous. During the Weimar Period, which stretched from 1919 through to 1933, a democratic government tried to cope with hundreds of thousands of injured and shell-shocked returned soldiers, food shortages, an economic collapse, and the rise of political movements on the far right and the far left that sought to destabilize the government.
The image that has come down to us about Weimar Germany – in fact, about the 1920s in general – was that it was some kind of decadent decade, when both Europe and the United States threw off the horrors of war to indulge in sex, drugs, and the Charleston. Films such as “Cabaret” and books such as The Great Gatsby present images of people who seem to be dancing as fast as they can to escape some horror that is just outside the frame. In these views of the 1920s, the triumph of the Fascists in Italy and the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933 seem unexplainable, as if a generation of self-involved young people had simply been caught napping as far-right movements marshaled their forces behind the scenes.
But another work of the decade, published in 1929, Alfred Doblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, depicts a Berlin far away from the world of champagne and cabarets. Its re-release provides readers with a chance to acquaint themselves with the Berlin underground of criminals – the world that the book’s main character, Franz Biberkopf, has been locked away from for several years while he has been serving a prison sentence. The novel was a huge hit when it was initially released. Walter Benjamin, the genius German intellectual (who would later commit suicide rather than be killed by the Nazis because he was Jewish) described the book as an “Education sentimentale of the petty thief,” in this way functioning as a coming-of-age tale.
Netflix has recently begun streaming Babylon Berlin, a series that also takes place during the 1920s. Alexanderplatz, the great plaza where the police station was located, features prominently in this series that explores just how difficult life was for the average German at this time. While the scenes that take place in night clubs are stunning, it is the constant presence of homeless people begging for food and work that reminds viewers that Germany was still in the midst of economic crisis, where one strata of German society was doing exceptionally well, while the rest of the country struggled to pay the bills. And, the crimes that the police investigate are about the political machinations as factions of Soviet Communism, those who supported Stalin versus those who supported Trotsky, killed each other for information. At the same time, the Freikorps, the predecessor of the National Socialist Party, roamed the streets, beating up anyone they didn’t see as “true Germans.”
An American journalist wrote to a friend in 1923, describing the Freikorps:
Here in Bavaria, I am in the stronghold of reaction. At night I am often awakened by the military commands and the march of men (monarchists) who are training at night in the forests and in the mountains. It is a gruesome feeling – this secret training of men to kill other men. And these men being trained are peasants and working-men – not the class we usually think of.
Agnes Smedley went on to explain to her friend that these men trained so that when they encountered groups of Communists, they would be able to engage them in battle. And she told her friend, their actions made no sense to her. “What is this business everywhere – men preparing to murder their own kind for the sake of an idea? Not their own idea either, but that of men who use them as tools to set themselves in power.”
Smedley recognized that vast numbers of disaffected young men, unable to get jobs and with too much time on their hands, were being manipulated by those who sought power. By stirring up these men’s anger, these potential dictators sought to harness that violence and use it to their own ends.
Another writer, the academic Klaus Theweleit, produced two masterful volumes in which he interpreted the actions of the Freikorps.
In addition to their hatred for “foreigners,” the Freikorps reacted against the newly sexually liberated woman of the post-war period, and their views reduced women to the “madonna/whore” dichotomy in which the only woman who was worthy of respect was one’s mother, and one’s wife. All other women were good only if she could be used for sexual purposes. These attitudes would carry over into the Nazi period, when German women were awarded medals and money for having multiple children, and non-German women were not even seen as human beings.
In Berlin Alexanderplatz, the complex relation between men and women play out. On one hand, the average male criminal needed the income that could be brought in from prostitution in order to supplement what he could earn. This meant that Franz and his cohorts were in love with women that they were also pimping out. And, as expected, the feelings engendered by such actions got ugly. The exploited women used the little power they had left—the power derived from the emotional attachments to these men—to stir up conflict that fed into a cycle of abuse.
But Doblin creates a story where his characters are conscious of how the economic chaos they are living in is creating problems for the Weimar government. At several moments throughout the book, characters discuss the different political factions who are attempting to recruit men. In several poignant passages, men who served on the battlefields talk about the alienation they are experiencing. They hold onto feelings about how they sacrificed their youth for their country only to come home and be reviled as losers and ignored when they ask for something back from their government. And, as workers whose low wages are further reduced by inflation, they recognize that they are being sold a bill of goods. The middle class looks around at a service economy that lacks a manufacturing base to produce real income and wonders at the cruelty of items for sale that they can’t afford. The workers bemoan the government that fails to acknowledge the need for decent wages and social services. And at other points, someone will bemoan the amount of money that is going to take care of disabled veterans, arguing that they knew what they signed up for, so why is it everyone else’s responsibility to take care of them?
It is difficult to read Berlin Alexanderplatz and not see America’s current situation. An economy that is built on service where workers’ wages are stagnated, where the rich continue to own more and more while most Americans have less and less, the backlash against the social welfare system where people don’t want to pay to take care of those who can’t care for themselves, the blaming of a government that ignores the needs of the many, and a system in which Americans are constantly told to buy goods that they can’t afford, and then blames them for debt. And, as happened in Weimar Germany, it didn’t take long for demagogues to come along who told some of the population that other members of the population were to blame for their troubles.
Alfred Doblin’s 1929 masterpiece feels timeless at this moment in America. Reading it provides its audience with a view of a society where economic disaster drove people into criminality, or into the arms of extreme political groups that used anger and hatred as the simple answers in a changing world that felt too complex for most people to understand. Its mirror is 90 years old, but it presents a clear image to today’s readers.